IBM's Watson bores as 'Jeopardy' big shot Sherlock

In the first of three nights playing against two great "Jeopardy" champions, IBM supercomputer Watson scores well but shows precious little character. He also made howling errors.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Watching IBM's Watson supercomputer make its debut tonight on "Jeopardy," one thought dominated: why, oh, why did they make him sound like Hal's diffident nephew?

This was the future freaks' big chance to make themselves acceptable to the human race. This was national television.

Watson had been created by human beings who pride themselves in their ability to teach a machine, rather than a child, to be as smart as they are. So why did they not think about giving Watson a little character? A shock of long, green hair, perhaps. Oversize purple ears would have been a plus.

At the worst, a voice resembling Morgan Freeman with a lisp would have been welcome.

Instead, this technological Trojan Horse presented himself to a nationwide audience with all the presence of boiled soot.

To be fair, it wasn't even Watson before the cameras. It was an avatar created to represent him, as his vast bulk and din wouldn't have made this a TV event for the aged, never mind the ages.

I understand that many scientists will have felt entirely giddy at the idea that a computer could compete against two "Jeopardy" superstars: a nice man from Seattle and an equally nice man who used to live in Pennsylvania but is now is hoping to be a TV star in LA.

But if this is the future, some might wish to google details of that elegant euthanasia clinic in Switzerland.

Watson performed very well. If, by performance, you mean getting quite a lot of "Jeopardy" conundrums correct.

Watson in rehearsals. He's the one in the middle. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

Former "Jeopardy" champion Ken Jennings, the man with a preacher's side parting and the remnants of Conan's ginger hair, stood transfixed as Watson beat him to question after question, answer after answer.

However, this is a best of three. And Jennings and fellow humanoid competitor Brad Rutter allowed the machine to strut its stuff. They knew he had to falter. This machine had never seen the bright lights before.

Perhaps sweating backstage while his avatar faced the orchestra, Watson suddenly managed to repeat one of Jennings' wrong answers.

"No, Ken said that," explained Alex Trebek, the professorial host of "Jeopardy."

If Watson had wanted to endear himself to the world, his programmers might have given him a line like: "Silly, me. I'm just a stupid ole' piece of metal."

Instead, he stood there like a nerd who's been looking for the local chess club and has stumbled into the Playboy mansion.

This first show was a little stunted, as Trebek spent considerable minutes explaining to the audience why the less familiar contestant was less expressive than some but more expensive than all.

It was a fine ad for the forthcoming IBM empire, though those with eyes for these things would have been more warmed by the footage of IBM's engineers preparing for Watson's big day. Most of them had PCs, but one was definitely stroking a Mac.

Watson's dilemma, which became increasingly clear as the show went on, was that he has to have a certain level of probability before pressing his button. Machines don't guess. That would be far too blessedly human.

The mean-spirited (i.e. excessively human) might have rejoiced on one particular exchange.

The contestants were asked to find the question to: "From the Latin for end, this is where trains can also originate."

Watson, still impassive, but allegedly 97 percent confident (his confidence levels were shown on screen when the clues were given), replied: "What is finis?" He should have considered terminus.

This was only the beginning. Tomorrow is Double and Finis Jeopardy. Wednesday, there's more. Even now, Watson is tied with Rutter on $5,000 and $3,000 ahead of the mesmerizing Jennings.

Can this possibly end well?

Related story: Me versus Watson: Putting myself in 'Jeopardy'